Chile: the power of book groups

I have a confession to make: I’ve never been to a book group. In fact they fill me with dread.

I’m not quite sure why. Maybe the workshop process on my master’s course inoculated me against any desire to sit in rooms talking about books with all but a very few close friends or maybe it’s that I prefer to organise and express my thoughts through writing rather than speaking. More likely it’s because I’m not actually very good in groups — I have a bad habit of disengaging and clamming up when a line of conversation makes me impatient or gets pulled in too many directions.

Nevertheless it’s clear from people I speak to and visitors to this blog that book groups are a valuable way for readers to share their enthusiasm for literature and to discover works that might otherwise have passed them by.

This is particularly true in a place like London, where people of all sorts of cultural and national backgrounds can meet and mingle to swap ideas. So when an old university friend told me that she had particularly enjoyed a novel by young writer Alejandro Zambra that she read for her book group recently, it seemed like the perfect suggestion for my Chilean book.

Spanning a single night, The Private Lives of Trees follows aspiring-novelist-turned-literature professor Julian as he waits for his wife Veronica to come home from her drawing class. His stepdaughter Daniela is in bed and he is telling her a bedtime story, but, as the hours pass and the idea of Veronica’s return becomes an increasingly forlorn hope, the comfortable domestic scene snags and unravels, sending Julian groping through a gallery of memories and paranoid projections in an effort to stave off the horrid realisation that his life is changed for good.

Zambra’s skill lies in making a non-event — Veronica’s failure to appear — the central action of the novel. Normally books in which very little happens suffer from a lack of tension for which their rich arrays of literary insights struggle to compensate. Here, however, the drama builds, tautening the sinews of the narrative in line with Julian’s nerves as he strains to hear the familiar sound of his wife coming through the door.

For all its tension, the book also manages some flashes of comedy that vary the register nicely. This is helped by the arch narrative voice, which hovers half in and half out of Julian’s head and tantalises the reader with startling statements delivered in a cavalier, off the cuff way — ‘For now suffice it to say that during those years Julian pretended not to have a family’ it informs us at one point before sweeping on to other matters.

One or two of the devices are a little stale. The section where Julian tells himself what would happen ‘if this were a novel’, for example, has been done too many times by other writers for it to retain the dramatic irony it needs.

For the most part, though, this is an engrossing story told by an inventive and subtle writer in a sharp and skilful translation. I enjoyed it very much. Perhaps it’s time I thought about giving book groups a go…

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell). Open letter (2010)

Togo: the writer I’d most like to meet

I knew I had to read Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s book as soon as I saw his Wikipedia entry.  Being forced to join a snake cult after a childhood run-in with a jungle python would be more than enough of a life story for most people. But then to set yourself the goal of running away to Greenland after you found a book on the place and saw that it had no snakes and no trees in which they might hide? And to succeed? I had to find out more.

I was more than a little apprehensive, though. In my experience, people who have extraordinary tales to tell are often terrible at putting them across, the bravado and impulsiveness required for having adventures not usually sitting well with the diligence and reflection required for good writing.

Luckily, Kpomassie proved to be an exception: not only is An African in Greenland, his account of his ten-year odyssey to meet and live with ‘the little men of the North’, told with warmth, humour and humanity, it is also exceptionally skilfully written (it won the 1981 Prix Litteraire Francophone).

Having travelled his way up through Africa and Europe, learning languages as he went by correspondence courses and working in whatever jobs he could find, Kpomassie has the talent for looking at any society he finds himself in with an outsider’s eyes. This pays dividends when it comes to describing the customs of his tribe in Togo — where the second-born twin is considered senior because he or she sends the first one out as a scout, where chickens are used in healing rituals, and where teenage boys find extraordinary uses for desiccated lizards — and in Greenland.

At times, Kpomassie’s descriptions of the widespread promiscuity and alcoholism he discovered in southern Greenland and the reactions of the Inuits to the ‘first black man’ to visit them are startlingly frank. Open and ready to think the best of those he encounters, despite his early traumas with the python worshippers, Kpomassie describes the world with enthusiasm and honesty, revealing many of its marvels and flaws.

Yet the book is a testament not only too Kpomassie’s positivity and determination and the wonder of the world but to the warmth of humankind. In fact, his descriptions of the many spontaneous offers of accommodation, help and support he received during his journey remind me of the generosity I’m repeatedly encountering from book lovers around the globe as I pursue this project to read a book from every country in the world this year. The book and the extraordinary story it tells are proof that with energy, hope and a little bit of luck, almost anything is possible.

Tété-Michel, I don’t know where your travels are taking you now, but if you’re ever passing through south London dinner’s on me.

An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie (translated from the French by James Kirkup). Publisher (this edition): New York Review Books (2001)

Bosnia and Herzegovina: out of the mouths of babes

Novels in children’s voices tend to be the Marmite of literature. While some people love the fresh, quirky insights that pepper works such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Emma Donoghue’s Room, others find them contrived, suspect and twee. Usually for such works to be in with a fighting chance of success, the child narrators must describe traumatic events beyond their understanding, creating a poignant gap between their generally upbeat interpretation of reality and the sad truth.

Saša Stanišić’s English PEN-championed How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone comes from this stable. Presenting the Bosnian War of the early-mid nineties through the eyes of young Aleksandr Krsmanoviæ, the book is a striking portrait of the way conflict ravages homes, lives, and psyches and the personal implications of events watched on TV screens hundreds and thousands of miles away.

Much like Hwang Sok-Yong’s The Guest, the novel intercuts periods of reflection and domesticity with scenes of extreme violence, revealing the psychological rifts that trauma inflicts. The difference is that where Hwang puts his outrages into the mouths of characters and ghosts, Stanišić rumples the chronology of the novel, sending the adult Aleksandr ricocheting back and forth between his memories and his inability to process them.

When they work, the time shifts and child’s voice, which is also varied with a third-person narrator, allow for some telling comment on the cruel illogic of war. The young Aleksandr walks us through the absurd hypocrisy of concepts such as enforced ‘voluntary repatriation’ and ‘our language which we’re not allowed to call Serbo-Croat anymore’ more succinctly and memorably than any adult would.

There are also some extraordinarily tense scenes and some powerful experimental passages. I particularly liked the chapter recording some of Aleksandr’s attempts to phone every house in Sarajevo in search of his long-lost childhood friend Asija.

Occasionally, though, the shifts become a little wearing and overly disorientating. This is not helped by wonky formatting in the e-edition, which means that chapter headings are split between pages for much of the second half of the book.

Some of the more surreal scenes towards the end also fall a little flat. The passage where the young Aleksandr has a long dialogue with the river in which he is fishing, for example, while indicative of his retreat into fantasy in the face of horror, is hard work.

Nevertheless, this is a powerful and, for the most part, compelling book. Its unflinching presentation of the extremes of human suffering makes for some gripping sequences, which will stay with me long after I’ve archived the book away into the great e-library in the sky. And my tweeness radar barely beeped once.

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić (translated from the German by Anthea Bell). Publisher (Kindle edition): Grove Press (2008)

South Korea: telling tales

‘A man needs to understand where he comes from in order to be truly human’

The question of what counts as national literature keeps cropping up in this project. As recommendations for books from different countries continue to flood in, I’m struck by the different interpretations people have.

For some of us it’s about whether a book is set in a particular country. Others think that books have to be by people who hold citizenship or were born and brought up in the nation. Still others say it’s down to whether the author, who may hold citizenship for several states, identifies him or herself as being ‘from’ that place. Meanwhile countries themselves are often very quick to claim great writers with very cosmopolitan backgrounds as their own.

As I’ve been researching the titles for the list, I’ve found myself leaning towards a definition of national literature that requires the writer to have a strong connection with the country in question. Frequently this will mean that he or she was born there, but it can also be the case that the writer has adopted a country or lived there for a large chunk of his or her life, as in the case of South Korean-born Austrian writer Anna Kim.

But what happens if you were born into a nationality that no longer exists?

Celebrated South Korean dissident writer Hwang Sok-Yong — himself born before Korea was divided after the second world war — explores the scars that such nation making and breaking leaves on individual and national psyches and the stories that we tell to explain them in his haunting 2002 novel The Guest.

Following an elderly American pastor, Yosop, who joins a government programme to visit the region in North Korea where he was born, the narrative explores the legacy of a 52-day massacre that saw around a quarter of the population of Hwanghae Province killed during the 1950 Korean War. The massacre has long been attributed to the US forces by the North Korean government, but Yosop’s memory of events is somewhat different. As he works his way around the initiative’s series of carefully stage-managed events and visits his remaining relatives inside the secretive communist state, he encounters a series of characters and ghosts who enable him to piece together a much more rounded and disturbing picture.

The book presents a refreshing contrast to the two-dimensional reports that make up the bulk of reporting on North Korea in the Western media. Less interested in attacking the regime than in illuminating the reasons for its development, Hwang presents a subtle and nuanced picture of the country, which he was jailed by the South Korean government for visiting illegally in 1989 — ‘It seems the communists, too, can be quite humane, eh?’ remarks one of Yosop’s companions in Pyongyang.

Nevertheless, the administration’s vice-like grip on the national narrative simmers beneath the novel, bubbling to the surface now and then — as in the scene where Yosop is forced to sit and listen to a series of hysterical survivors’ stories of US atrocities at a state museum, all the while knowing them to be false.

In fact, the role of memory and eye-witness accounts underpins the novel. Much of the narrative is stitched together from a series of somewhat surreal monologues delivered by the living and the dead.  At times, these can feel stilted and forced — not helped by the hefty chunks of exposition which the complex subject matter requires.

Nevertheless, the resolution depends on each of the beings having the chance to deliver his or her testimony; only once all the contrasting accounts have been heard and considered can Yosop’s ghosts be laid to rest.  The right to swap stories, however controversial, messy, provocative or contradictory, is essential to the way we understand and assimilate our origins, it seems, no matter where we’re from.

The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong (translated from the Korean by Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West). Publisher (Kindle edition): Seven Stories Press (2011)

Nigeria: family matters

I’m not usually a fan of putting family trees at the start of novels. Maybe it’s because I’m not a very visual person, but it seems to me that greeting readers with a complex diagram featuring a load of names of characters they’ve not met yet is a sure-fire way to put people off.

But then, as I’m finding again and again in my quest to read a book from every country this year, there are exceptions to most of my assumptions about literature. And The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin is, er, no exception.

As the title suggests, the 2011 Orange prize-longlisted novel unravels the hidden stories of the four women of the household of Baba Segi, a prosperous, middle-aged businessman in the Nigerian city of Ibadan. The catalyst for the revelations is encapsulated neatly by the diagram on the opening page: a family tree that shows the offspring of three of the wives but only a blank space under the name of Bolanle, the fourth wife. As Baba Segi tries everything he can think of to discover the cause of his nubile, young spouse’s childlessness, one secret after another tumbles out of the shadows to smash open in the heart of his ordered home.

As with Mariama Bâ’s classic So Long a Letter (about a polygamous marriage in Senegal), education is a major theme in the book. At first, university graduate Bolanle seems like the odd one out in Baba Segi’s home, where, faced with the jealousy and vindictiveness of Baba Segi’s poorly educated older wives, she discovers ‘the dark side of illiteracy’. It seems clear that some hidden calamity must have made her abandon the independent career her mother dreamed she would follow in favour of the ‘unspeakable self-flagellation’ of life with the well-meaning but boorish Baba Segi.

But as the narrative unfolds and we hear from each of the wives in turn, it becomes apparent that each of the woman has been forced into their situation by the cruelty and thoughtlessness of others and circumstances beyond their control. In fact, as the final, deft twist in the plot comes into view, we realise that the only person more thwarted and disenfranchised than the women of the household is Baba Segi himself.

Shoneyin has that rare gift of being passionate on her characters’ behalfs while putting their stories over in an engaging and often very funny way. The undercurrents of the subject matter — in particular the frequent inability of mothers to offer daughters a better path in life through no fault of their own — are often deeply sad, yet they are overlaid with a series of sometimes harrowing but often funny set pieces that keep the book from tumbling into worthiness.

In particular, the encounters of Baba Segi with Western medicine, to which he turns as a last resort (and the way the doctors modulate their bedside manner to incorporate ‘the traditional shit [that] always worked on the older farts’) are very entertaining.

So much so, that I read the whole book in pretty much one sitting. And that family tree is still etched on my mind even now.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin (Serpent’s Tail 2010, 2011)

Andorra: buried treasure

I was nervous about this book. Finding a good novel in translation from the tiny state of Andorra, nestling in the Pyrenees between Spain and France, was always going to be tricky. Nevertheless, when I got in touch with Catalan author Albert Salvadó on the recommendation of Josep Carles Lainez, who himself writes in Spanish, Catalan and Asturian and is editor of the literary journal Debats, I was more than a little  disconcerted to find that the English translation of Salvadó’s best book — the one that, as he said in one of his emails, ‘made [him] famous’ — was a self-published ebook.

It had won the 1998 Nestor Lujan prize for historical novels in Catalan, but, given that there are estimated to be fewer than 10 million Catalan speakers in the world today, I wasn’t convinced about the level of the competition. With the words of Jonathan Franzen about how ebooks are ruining society reverberating in my mind, I flicked the Kindle on and started to read.

I was in for a pleasant surprise. Following the fortunes of Sedum, a slave during the Fourth Dynasty of Pharaohs in Egypt roughly 4,500 years ago, the book explores themes of ambition and self-determination, marking out the boundary line between responsible goals and overweening greed.

As Sedum rises in status through luck and his own shrewdness, eventually becoming Pharaoh Snefru’s accountant and tutor to his son Cheops, he runs up against a series of ruthless individuals intent on sacrificing everything in their paths, including Sedum, in the interests of personal gain. These battles of wills and their extreme consequences keep the pages turning, stoking a sense of drama that draws the reader through, rooting for Sedum all the way.

Salvadó has certainly done his homework: the book is painstakingly researched. By and large, the level of detail and historical knowledge is well-handled, with only the odd section feeling like an extract from an anthropological tome on the customs of Ancient Egypt. I found myself wishing now and again that the author could have made more of the poetic possibilities of some of the material, but the matter-of-fact style generally suited the pace of the book, and at times paid dividends — for example in the descriptions of the gruesome tortures meted out to those found to be crossing the Pharoah.

The text itself felt professional and slick, with fewer errors than I’ve found in many a commercially published ebook. Now and then there were linguistic oddities that I suspect may have crept in at the translation stage. The repeated insight that ‘the universe is mental’, for example, can’t have come across quite as it read in the original Catalan and Spanish versions. Similarly, the surprisingly graphic sex scenes — ‘the fire that burned in their testicles’, ‘he pulled her labia apart’, ‘she covered her pubis with her hand’ — have more than a touch of the medical dictionary about them, which may not be quite what the author intended.

Nevertheless, this is a highly readable light novel with, now and then, some powerful flashes of insight into human greed, pride and ambition (there is also, according to the Author’s Endnote, a ‘door to the universe of Absolute Knowledge’ in the form of the Ancient Egyptian Eighth Principle of the Emerald Tablet and two conditions needed to attain it, which are hidden somewhere in the text. I didn’t spot them, but readers who do identify the two conditions are invited to contact the author through his website for more information — if that’s not worth the price of an ebook, I don’t know what is).

Is this the best book I’ve read so far this year? No. Did that stop me enjoying it? Not in the slightest — it was a good read. And interestingly, this is the second ebook that has enabled me to access literature that would otherwise have been beyond my reach (the first being the Lithuanian anthology No Men, No Cry). Pardon me, Mr Franzen, sir, but, from where I’m standing, ebooks are shaping up to be a darn good thing.

The Teacher of Cheops by Albert Salvadó (translated from the Catalan/Spanish by Marc Brian Duckett). Publisher (Kindle edition): Albert Salvadó (2011)

Guatemala: divide and rule

‘I think with the President’s mind, therefore I exist.’

Looking down the list of books from the 196 sovereign states I’m trying to read my way round this year, I’m struck by how many of them are by senior government figures. Coming from the UK, the concept of the politician-novelist is not something I’m very familiar with. In fact the last major work of fiction I can think of by a British prime minister (Tony Blair’s A Journey aside) would have to be Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, which came out around 140 years ago.

All the more striking, then, that so many notable 20th century political players elsewhere in the world should have won acclaim for their literary efforts. However, I suspect few of them can have engaged with the question of governance more directly and passionately in fiction than journalist-turned-congressman-diplomat-turned-Nobel-prize-winner Miguel Ángel Asturias.

First released in Mexico in 1946, Asturias’s most famous novel The President portrays the sharp end of life in a totalitarian state. Beginning with a random killing among a group of beggars that spirals into a witch hunt, the narrative reveals how truth, bodies and even life itself are maimed and distorted to suit the needs of the great ‘protector… who watches over us with a father’s love’.

Violence, both real and imagined, pervades the text, which stitches together a series of personal tragedies and outrages as families, friendships, faith and integrity smash against the intransigence and inhumanity of the state and are destroyed. Many of them stand as synecdochic metaphors for the plight of the people – from the lawyer left struggling in the dark to read and make a case against the lengthy false indictment that will cost him his life to the blind beggar woman ‘dreaming that she was covered in flies and suspended from a hook like a piece of meat in a butcher’s shop’.

These moments of extremity are thrown into relief by a series of cruel juxtapositions with festivals and celebrations and even bursts of humour that emphasise the ‘grotesque farce’ in which all the characters are trapped and the cold indifference to the suffering of others that terror breeds.

At the centre of this web of fear sits the shadowy figure of the President. Mentioned in every chapter, he nevertheless has a strangely absent quality, and is far removed from the daily realities of his people (he only appears in person a handful of times). This renders his fickle decisions all the more chilling, engendering the same sense of uncertainty in the reader that causes half the guests at a state ceremony to wet themselves in fright when a bandsman drops his drum.

Asturias’s satire is made rich by his use of language and the extraordinary panoramic descriptions with which he brings his nightmare state to life. Eliot glimmers in some of the linguistic effects – ‘Doors and doors and doors and windows and doors and windows flashed past him’ – and he anticipates Beckett in surreal exchanges such as the haunting chapter ‘Conversation in the Dark’. There are even the early outriders of magical realism in some of his more vivid passages.

The result is a compelling manifesto against the mechanisms that enable tyrants to seize and maintain supreme power and a passionate treatise on the fragile beauty of the human spirit. It is a call to arms in the defence of freedom and independent thought more stirring than any keynote speech. Western politicians may not be writing so much any more, but I hope they are reading this book.

The President by Miguel Angel Asturias (translated from the Spanish by Frances Partridge). Publisher (this edition): Waveland Press (1997). First published in Mexico in 1946

Antigua and Barbuda: a new departure

Migration has cropped up many times in the books I’ve read so far this year. From tension built on the disparity between regions in a single country, in works such as Ismail Kardare’s Broken April and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes, to countries where emigration almost seems part of the national psyche, as in Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad and the Lithuanian anthology, the challenge of moving from one place to another seems to be a favourite topic for storytellers the world over.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that books that bridge several cultures are more likely to find an international audience. But it’s also true that there are few scenarios calculated to show up the fault lines in individuals and societies more clearly than the arrival of an outsider.

For all the books on the subject though you’d have to go a long way to find a pithier migration tale than Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy. Following the fortunes of a 19-year-old girl who leaves her home in the Caribbean to work as an au pair in the USA, the 1990 novel looks at the rupture that relocation can cause in a life, ‘like a flow of water dividing formerly dry and solid ground’, and provides a fresh, feisty and at times alarming perspective on the land of the free and on British colonialism.

From the first, Lucy’s blunt yet humane account of life with her wealthy white employers Mariah and Lewis provides some powerful insights into the contradictions of modern life. Through Lucy, we see the blind hypocrisy of Mariah’s well-meant involvement with a nature preservation campaign — ‘I couldn’t bring myself to ask her to examine Lewis’s daily conversation with his stockbroker, to see if they bore any relation to the things she saw passing away forever before her eyes’ — and the hollowness of the idyllic nuclear family she has constructed around her, a fiction to which she clings in the face of mounting evidence of her husband’s affair with one of her friends.

More interesting still is the depiction of the gulf between Mariah and Lucy, which their contrasting experiences of freedom and colonialism have engendered and which no amount of good will on both sides can conquer completely. This is powerfully summed up in Lucy’s violent reaction to a bunch of daffodils Mariah brings home. Seeing the flowers for the first time in her life, she is reminded of being made to learn and recite a poem about them at the Queen Victoria Girls’ School when she was 10. After the anger evoked by the memory subsides, she realises that ‘nothing could change the fact that where [Mariah] saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness’.

Lucy is no passive victim, though. Irreverent, strong-willed and uninhibited, she refuses to conform to the expectations of others and is determined to seize and taste all the experience she can. This makes her both likeable and compelling as she bucks against the ties that link her to the homeland she loves and despises.

 As she comes to ‘see the sameness in things that appear to be different’, it’s impossible not to share her sadness at the compromised nature of the world. Independence it seems, whether personal or national, is infinitely more than a question of geography.

Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. Publisher (this edition): Plume (1991)

Tajikistan: imagine

‘Is Tajikistan a real country?’ asked someone when I said it was next on my list. ‘Are you sure it’s not one of those made up places?’

I don’t know what ‘those made up places’ are — are we talking Neverland, Utopia or Walford here? — but strangely enough I think the citizens of Tajikistan might have chimed in with my companion’s sentiments back in the early nineties, when ‘one day everything, literally in a single instant, tore away irrevocably from its old bearings and went careering downhill like a snowball, picking up more and more atrocities on its way’.

Charting the outbreak of civil war in Tajikistan following the collapse of the USSR, Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad, which is named after a mythical city of joy and happiness, portrays the eviction of ethnic Russians who ‘suddenly found [themselves] in exile without having to move anywhere’. This is told through seven interlinked stories, each revealing the private calamity of a different individual and the way it contributes to the undermining and toppling of a collective reality that had existed for 70 years.

Anti-Booker prize-winner Volos is usually considered to be a Russian writer (and he writes in Russian), yet he was born in what is now Tajikistan, where his family had lived since the 1920s (his father suffered a heart attack and died when they were evicted). His personal perspective on the tragedies and atrocities he describes — from the man using all he has in the world to buy a gravestone for his brother before he leaves his homeland for good to the man coerced into kidnapping and sex-trafficking young girls to Afghanistan for arms — gives a muscular, biting edge to the writing, which at times launches vicious attacks on the authorities that stood by while their citizens were robbed, raped, ruined and rejected.

What is extraordinary, however, is the way that Volos has been able to sublimate and channel this emotion into a towering work of art in such a short space of time (the original text appeared in 1998). Indeed, the things described are so shocking and so far removed from anything that we in Western Europe have had to deal with for decades that I found my brain reordering 1992 to read 1929 the first few times I encountered it, as though it simply couldn’t entertain the proximity of these events.

While the constant switching from one story to another can be a little tiring and disorientating, the pieces themselves are immensely powerful. For my money ‘The House by the River’, in which Yamninov, having been forced to sign away his property to a government thug, embarks on a desperate and soul-destroying attempt to save the family house he spent seven years building, is in a league of its own. But each piece is compelling.

Over and above this, though, Volos’s use of imagery (aided no doubt by Arch Tait’s excellent translation) is among the very best I’ve read. The text glitters with spine-tingling similes and metaphors. From the ‘low overcast sky… like a hat pulled down over someone’s eyes’ to the abandoned assumptions that ‘immediately leapt back the way mountains do when you take the binoculars from your eyes’ and the heat ‘like a poultice slapped over the eyes’, Volos demonstrates time and again his ability to reach out from this forgotten corner of the world and take you to his characters.

The result is engrossing and shaming. With this book, Volos makes the experience of being evicted from your homeland by force — an experience to which many of us have been deadened by reams of newsprint and the blue flickers of the nightly news — immediate, human and real.

It left me feeling I’d been living in a fairytale until I read it.

Hurramabad by Andrei Volos (translated from the Russian by Arch Tait). Publisher (this edition): GLAS (2001)

Senegal: the other woman

Discovering that your middle-aged husband has fallen for one of your teenage daughter’s school friends has got to be pretty high in the nightmare stakes for most married women. In British novels, such a scenario usually has one of two outcomes:

  1. aggrieved woman ditches the bastard, reconnects with the vibrant, inner self her marriage has stifled all these years and realises she’s better off without him
  2. aggrieved woman thinks about ditching the bastard and reconnecting with her vibrant, inner self, but, after much soul-searching, and after her husband has realised the folly of his ways, finds a complex, unconventional peace with what has happened and moves forward as a beautiful, seasoned character.

But what about countries where your husband is not only expected to fall for another, younger girl but also legally entitled to bring her into your home and family as his second wife?

Mariama Bâ’s partly autobiographical 1980 novel explores just such a predicament. Written in the form of a letter from schoolteacher Ratamalouye to her old friend Assiatou, the novel’s series of reminiscences sets out the ‘slender liberty granted to women’ and in particular the plight of first wives who are ‘despised, relegated or exchanged… like a worn-out boubou [robe]’ under Islamic polygamy.

Ratamalouye’s husband of 25 years, Modou, has just died. As the rituals of the 40-day mourning period throw her together with his extended family, she relives the hurt and indignity of losing his affections and support to one of her daughter’s friends three years previously. She rehearses these thoughts in her letters to Assiatou, who took the unconventional step of leaving her own husband when he married a second wife, and her descriptions become a prism through which Bâ is able to illuminate the frustrations of many Senegalese women.

Bâ’s work might easily tip into a rant if she weren’t so for aware of the complexity of living through the issues she describes. Though clearly a passionate believer in the importance of education for all, she tempers this with reflections on the toll academic aspirations have taken on rural life with ‘the disappearance of an elite class of traditional manual workers’ because ‘The dream is to become a clerk. The trowel is spurned’. Similarly, though full of admiration for Assiatou’s hard-worn career and independence and though she rejoices ‘every time a woman emerges from the shadows’, Ratamalouye is prevented by her love for her husband and sense of duty from following her friend’s path.

Interestingly, So Long a Letter is the first book I’ve read so far this year where Western influence is presented as a largely positive thing. Ratamalouye writes with unqualified affection of the French headmistress who strove ‘to lift us out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom, to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own’. Given the choice of novel endings facing women in western Europe and women in West Africa, perhaps that’s not such a surprise.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ (translated from the French by Modupé Bodé-Thomas). Heinemann International Literature & Textbooks (1989)